How the West was Won (1962)

When it’s on: Friday, 2 January (2.05 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

It’s a neat comparison to suggest that Cinerama was the IMAX of its day. The latter, those colossal cinema experiences, are quite special in their own way, but with home cinema easily available and many big new releases available on IMAX, it can’t replicate the extent to to which Cinerama really was a big deal.

From 1949 to 1952, cinema audiences dwindled dangerously with the advent of television. As more American homes welcomed an ‘idiot’s lantern’, the number of people up for a night at the movies dropped by nearly a half, and Hollywood moguls scratched their heads over what to do about this crisis. The answer, inevitably, was spectacle. TVs invariably were 9″ screens, capable of producing black and white images, so the solution was to serve up something in theatres that the goggle box just couldn’t show you – sprawling films, featuring casts of thousands, made on a massive scale and in full, glorious colour. Little surprise, perhaps, that this was the era of the swords and sandals epic, the likes of Quo Vadis wowing the masses with expensively made feasts for the eyes. But it didn’t stop there. Ever earnest to undermine television, Hollywood came up with filming processes that widened the screen, given grandiose names like Vistavision and Cinemascope and offering more and more detail to awestruck audiences. ‘Widescreen’ was nothing new; as early as 1927, Abel Gance took advantage of a three-panel process called Polyvision to increase the scope of Napoleon and showed all those extras having at each other in contemporary military uniforms.

But even by these standards, Cinerama offered something unique. Fred Waller, who previously had attempted a logistically ludicrous process that used eleven projectors casting their images onto a dome, developed a system in which three cameras recorded simultaneously. The results would then be projected separately onto the left, central and right panels of a huge curved screen, done in such a way to produce a single, seamless image. A seven-channel sound system was an accompanying innovation, all designed to give audiences the feeling of being virtually immersed in what was being shown on the screen. Early exhibitions of the process, the wildly successful This is Cinerama (1952) was a showcase of what it could do, opening with a Roller Coaster ride that was shown from the perspective of someone sitting in the front car. The experience for viewers must have been amazing; This is Cinerama was a huge hit, more so for the limited number of screens that could support it.

Travelogues that took cameras to parts of the world previously inaccessible to the public made up much of Cinerama’s output through the rest of the 1950s, until it was decided to make dramatic films specifically for the process. The first was The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm. The second, and perhaps the ultimate expression of what Cinerama could create, was How the West was Won. It cost $15 million, a vast investment for the time, employed a cast of thousands to rub shoulders with some very big stars, took in the work of three prestigious directors, and created a sprawling saga that ran for more than two and a half hours.

It’s difficult watching How the West was Won on a small screen to appreciate the impact it must have made on Cinemara audiences. The film was designed for those looming curved screens, so something is inevitably lost on an ordinary television, even on a modern LED. For certain, there are better Westerns. The tight plotting of the very finest the genre has to offer goes out of the window in favour of a smash and grab from classic Western stories – castle rustling, showdowns with Native Americans, train heists, gunfights. It’s all in here, stringing together a loosely arching plot that tracks the Prescott family over half a century as they emigrate westward. The story takes in their experience as pioneering emigrants, the impact of the Civil war on their fortunes, along with that of the railroad, and the brief period of lawlessness before civilisation catches up with the mass migration of humans across the continent.

The conversion of a film intended for Cinerama onto a flat widescreen format presents further problems. At times, it’s possible to see the ‘joins’ on the screen, particularly when the shot is filled with blue skies. Added to that is the strange sense of perspective; it’s a little like watching the film on a cylinder, objects moving horizontally towards the screen from the right background before appearing to veer off towards the left rather than simply straight across it. To compensate for perspective issues, directors made actors stand in the dead centre of the screen and could never favour close-up shots. When two people converse, they were unable to look at each other in order for the illusion to work on Cinerama, yet on a ‘normal’ screen the problem returns and characters talk whilst peering off into some middle distance.

These, however, are minor issues and never really ruin the film, rather it’s possible to sit back and luxuriate in some quite gorgeous photography. One of the enormous benefits of Cinerama was its ability to show off the American landscape in beautiful, crystal clear images, and How the West was Won features the west at its most brilliant, natural and barren, indeed much of the intention was to illustrate a land untouched by the footsteps of modern man. It’s a thing of staggering visual pleasure.

The show is helped by the presence of an excellent cast of actors, a compendium of some the Western genre’s leading lights. Some, like John Wayne and Harry Morgan as jaded Generals Sherman and Grant, are little more than high profile cameo appearances. Gregory Peck is fine as a card playing rogue who also possesses a heart. There’s James Stewart, too old to be the fur tracker who captures Carroll Baker’s heart, but bringing class to the screen, and he’s involved in one of the film’s best action scenes when he helps the Prescotts beat off river pirates led by Water Brennan (and including in their ranks Lee Van Cleef). The film’s second half focuses strongly on George Peppard’s Zeb, the son of Baker and Stewart, who fights in the Civil War before helping the security of the railroad’s building and coming across Henry Fonda as a cynical and grizzled frontiersman. Zeb also has moral struggles with that classic Western anti-hero, Richard Widmark, who oversees the railtrack’s construction at any cost and whoever it affects, and later fights physically against Eli Wallach’s train robber, Charlie Gant.

There’s a lot going on, so much that the film was split into five segments, three of which were directed by Henry Hathaway, with George Marshall taking on the railroad story and John Ford covering the Civil War. All three experienced frustration with the Cinerama filming, the needs of the camera taking precedence over their normal shooting style, and they all wound up using objects like tree trunks to cover up the bits where audiences might see the ‘joins’.

How the West was Won is far from the best Western, but equally there’s nothing quite like it. Apart from the Cinerama aspects, it’s possible to see the film as marking the end of an era, a sort of compendium of the genre’s best bits from its classic era, before it moved into darker and grittier territory with the advent of the ‘Spaghetti’ films and Clint Eastwood.

How the West was Won: ****

And with that, readers, we’ve reached the end of the holiday fortnight. It’s been a blast writing these pieces, and I hope you have enjoyed reading them, perhaps one or two have even inspired you to watch a film you might otherwise have ignored. The bad news is that I can’t sustain this pace over a normal working week, however I have had too much of a good time to simply stop, and will be keeping FOTB going, probably on a reduced, two-three reviews per week basis. It’s your readership and support that has kept it going, so thanks for all the Follows, Likes and Comments, and I hope to see you throughout 2015!

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Call Northside 777 (1948)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 14 August (11.15 am)
Channel: More4
IMDb Link

Apologies for both the lateness of this piece, and for the fact it’s going to be a bit rougher around the edges than normal. I should be doing a lot more justice to Call Northside 777, a film very much in the mould of The House on 92nd Street and Boomerang! thanks to its documentary style and factual basis. It was however my birthday yesterday – 40, if you must pry – and I wasn’t allowed not to celebrate – part of that involved going to the IMAX to see The Dark Knight Rises, one of those over-hyped, breathlessly well reviewed releases that fortunately lives up to the praise.

In any case, back to the 1940s and a piece that takes as its inspiration another true story, that of the imprisonment of two men of Polish descent, James Mazczek and Theodore Marcinkewicz for murdering a police officer in Chicago in 1933. Part of the Prohibition crime wave, the men were convicted quickly following the testimony of Vera Walush, the speakeasy owner in whose store the killing took place. Eleven years later, an advert placed in the Chicago Times for information about the real gunmen put reporter James McGuire on the case, which after much investigation into police corruption and the need to get a result led to Mazczek’s exoneration in 1945. Marcinkewicz was released five years later.

Louis De Rochemont may not have been credited for Call Northside 777, but the legendary producer’s fingerprints are all over its tone and style. Truman Bradley’s narration adds a note of authenticity, as does the shooting on location in Chicago and the rounded performance of James Stewart as PJ McNeal, the cynical reporter who nonetheless senses a story and develops it. Stewart got involved after his war service, which found the actor seeking tougher roles based less on idealism and more on hardened experience leavened by conscience.

The story follows McNeal as he attempts to gain a pardon for one of the killers, Frank Wiecek (Richard Conte). There’s a sense throughout the film that this will be no easy feat. More than a decade after Wiecek’s incarceration, it’s clear people would rather forget about him and move on, leaving the man an unfortunate victim of circumstance. Conte is brilliant as Wiecek. Whilst protesting his innocence, he carries a streak of fatalism that comes with serving so much jail time and knowing that at least he gained a fresh start for his wife and baby. Seeing the actor impress so strongly as the villainous Mr Brown in The Big Combo (reviewed excellently over at Riding the High Country), it’s great to see him play a more sympathetic role and fall in with the film’s gritty tone. In one of his standout scenes, he takes a lie detector test. It’s an important moment because it’s appreciated the audience may have no idea how such an exercise works, so time is taken to explain the process and show Wiecek in the chair, smoking and trying not to break the examiner’s request to answer simply ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to leading questions that demand more explanation. To add that final element of realism, the man playing the lie detector examiner was Leonarde Keeler, none other than the co-inventor of the actual polygraph.

Call Northside 777 was directed by Henry Hathaway, a reliable hand on such a project and someone who wouldn’t over-burden the narrative with melodrama or swamp the film in stylistic touches. It could be argued that Hathaway didn’t have to add much personality to what is a cracking, investigative story, and that he was able to get much of the tone he wanted simply through the use of location filming. Much of Polish Chicago looks dark and foreboding, never more so than when McNeal finally tracks down key witness Wanda Skutnik (based on Vera Walush) in a run-down part of town, a dimly lit apartment that reflects entirely the mentality of the hard-bitten character. Betty Garde is, incidentally, a study in nastiness as the skin preserving survivalist, Skutnik. Possibly better still is the scene in the Chicago prison McNeal visits, the long shot of the building’s cylindrical structure, pockmarked by hundreds of cells, which not only gives an impression of his ‘needle in a haystack’ chance of proving Wiecek’s innocence but also the hint of all those other stories hidden behind each austere cell door.

The film loses the human tension that came in spades with Boomerang! by never taking place in a courtroom. It’s the more administrative Court of Appeal for McNeal and his hard won evidence, within a piece that never lets pace get in the way of the tough and often frustrating investigation he undertakes. In the end, it relies on modern technology for its result. The polygraph is one example of this; the other is the photo enlargement process that ultimately turns out the best bit of evidence McNeal can find. Like the lie detector, it’s explained in detail and there’s something  almost comedic about the entire Court of Appeal waiting by the ink drum of the wire service for the picture that may or may not free Wiecek.

A good picture, not to mention a bold piece of work that has many negative things to say about the police force’s desperation to get a result after the killing of one of their own, a murder mired in a number of similar, unsolved cases. The lack of an orchestral score (Alfred Newman’s work, as I recall, only appears on the film over the opening and closing credits) shows its faith in the strength of the material and the people who put it on the screen.

Call Northside 777: ****

The Shepherd of the Hills (1941)

When it’s on: Friday, 13 July (12.35 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Whether there’s some conscious scheduling of good movies on Friday or I just happen to chance upon the right one, the end of the week often serves up a bit of a treat and today’s no different. I hadn’t heard much about Henry Hathaway’s The Shepherd of the Hills before watching it and, in truth, didn’t expect a lot going off its history of heavy pre-release cuts, liberal deviations from the novel and reviews suggesting I was in for a slushy 100 minutes. How nice to be so pleasantly surprised, to have found myself really enjoying a well made picture that features a fine cast, solid storytelling and some quite ravishing photography.

The 1941 film was the third version of The Shepherd of the Hills. It was based on Harold Bell Wright’s novel, published in 1907 and going on to fly off the shelves in selling over a million copies. A minister based in Missouri, Wright resigned and became a full-time writer after the success of Shepherd, and eventually turned his hand to film-making following an adaptation of his seventh novel, The Eyes of the World, which dissatisfied him. The resulting picture, which Wright scripted and directed, was the only one he ever produced, and he spent the rest of his days cussing later efforts to bring his work to the screen, especially as the deal he signed in selling the film rights allowed whoever adapted his work to change anything they wanted within the source material.

Hathaway’s version, with its screenplay by Grover Jones and Stewart Anthony, gutted the novel, changing entire characters and retaining little save the title, location and basic premise. I haven’t read the book, indeed Wright’s star has slipped into obscurity and his works aren’t the easiest to pick up. What I have gone through is the Wikipedia plot summary, which confirms the smash and grab job that was committed for the film. And a good thing too. The novel’s story is one of redemptive melodrama with strong Christian overtones. It bears little resemblance beyond certain names to the somewhat dark and melancholic plot that develops in the film.

The film’s shepherd is Daniel Howitt (Harry Carey), an old man who turns up at a remote, Ozark community in order to buy Moaning Meadow. The homestead lies empty and abandoned, and many within the populace believe it’s haunted by the ghost of a woman whose man walked out on her years ago. Howitt doesn’t care. He’s willing to pay the extortionate price demanded by Mollie Matthews (Beulah Bondi), who inherited the Meadow from her dead sister and has left the place to rot, like any good haunted house casting a dark shadow over the region. Howitt’s motives in buying the place, like his past, remain largely a mystery. How he acquired his wealth is a further question mark, yet pretty soon he starts gaining the community’s sympathies by saving people. A man whose been shot after falling foul of federal agents hunting moonshiners has his wounds tended to by Howitt. A sick girl is brought back to health; her blind grandmother is sent away for the cure, all paid for and overseen by Howitt, who asks for nothing in return. By his good deeds, he becomes the shepherd of the title, but it’s a mission of atonement. Some unspoken past compels him to do good, and whilst it’s easy enough to work out his reasons, the way they evolve is fascinating.

The wildcard is the dead woman’s orphaned son, Young Matt (John Wayne). For years, Mollie – who has taken on the matriarchal role – has been instructing him to one day kill his father, the man who upped and left and caused his mother’s demise, and sure enough he fixes on Howitt, who turns out to hold exactly the identity viewers will have guessed he holds. Wayne puts in a strong performance as Matt, holding the camera’s attention whenever he appears on screen. His breakout turn in Stagecoach had already turned him into a star, but he was still some years away from settling into the traditional ‘Wayne hero’ and there are dark intentions to Young Matt that wouldn’t resurface in his playing until The Searchers.

The name-dropping of two John Ford classics has some relevance in the sense this brought together the star from Ford’s early days and the one he would go on to produce some of his best work with. Carey, who commanded massive clout during the silent era, gives every impression of passing on the baton to Ford, never more so than in the film’s tender fishing scene, which has far greater resonance beyond the screen’s borders than the familial bonds it is intended to depict.

But the real pull of The Shepherd of the Hills is neither actor. Betty Field owns the floor as Sammy Lane, the young woman who befriends Howitt and obviously adores Young Matt. You get a real sense of the community by watching Sammy, who’s sufficiently cut off from the wider world to be ignorant of such everyday items as cheques, yet she’s part enough of her own environment to ‘get’ everyone who dwells within it. Added to the mix is an almost otherworldly beauty. Field is never less than gorgeously shot, like Hathaway knew just what a captivating screen presence he was filming and photographed her to perfection. Touching is her attachment to both men, to the rising tension between them, all blended with a lovely, naive attitude to Moaning Meadow, to which she won’t travel without speaking a blessing and covering her eyes.

The Shepherd of the Hills was shot in California’s Big Bear Valley rather than relocating to the Ozark Mountains, but this never becomes a problem. Every shot is ravishing, taking in the panoramic, natural splendour whilst suggesting how cut off and insular the community is. The dialogue, a rural dialect all of its own, similarly implies a separate body of people and exacerbates the ‘outsider’ in Howitt. Hathaway lamented in later years the ruthless editing of his picture. Despite positive test screenings, the scissors were applied again and again to his film, until so much was excised that extra scenes needed to be filmed. By now, the director was off the project and someone was drafted in to shoot some linking scenes in a studio, which included the economical happy ending. I’m left to wonder what a two-hour edition of the film – all Hathaway’s scenes included – would be like. In the meantime, we’re left with 98 minutes of drama that’s time well spent. It’s a marvellous film.

The Shepherd of the Hills: ****

North to Alaska (1960)

When it’s on: Thursday, 5 July (12.45 pm)
Channel: Channel 4
IMDb Link

This week’s second Stewart Granger film finds our man playing George Pratt, a prospector at the turn of the twentieth century who’s struck lucky in Alaska. Along with his young brother Billy (Fabian) and business partner Sam McCord (John Wayne), George settles down to a life of gold mining and defending the vein against ‘claim jumpers.’ Sam is dispatched to Seattle in order to collect supplies and bring back George’s fiancé. She turns out to have given up on George and married another in the intervening years, so Sam does what any man would and visits a burlesque house to pick up a substitute for his friend. Enter Michelle (Capucine), an exotic French prostitute who, to no one’s real surprise, is quite happy to drop everything and follow Sam north. But here the complications arise. Michelle takes a quick shine to Sam. Once in Alaska, Billy falls for Michelle. Sam has underlying feelings for her too, but these are mixed in with loyalty to George, and it’s anyone’s guess what he’ll do about this turns of events…

None of these issues are quickly resolved in North to Alaska, a light-hearted adventure flick switching from farce to slapstick to romantic comedy with the kind of overlapping that suggests it wasn’t an easy film to make. A writers’ strike was underway, which left the project without a completed script and ended the association of Richard Fleischer, its original director. Fox instead turned to Henry Hathaway, who had to move things along on a day-by-day basis, sometimes working on bits of script for that day’s shooting before a camera rolled. It must have been a frustrating experience, and the seven screenwriting credits imply a chaotic process of turning John H Kafka’s idea into anything approaching a polished script. The film’s around half an hour too long, bloated to a running time of just over two hours – economy appears to have been a victim of the production difficulties.

Wayne needed a hit. His personal losses from investing heavily in The Alamo took their toll on his fortune and prompted him to take any project that offered an easy buck. By now a bona fide screen icon, Wayne was beginning to look like the pentagenarian that he was, but this didn’t stop him from accepting a role that had him playing the romantic lead with a French actress young enough to be his daughter, and the comic elements just about overcome any discomfort. Besides, Wayne developed on his skills of comedy timing, putting in a winning performance that subverted and parodied his usual screen persona. His easy chemistry with Granger, a similarly aged veteran, shone with the pair emerging on screen as natural pals, which just leaves teen idol Fabian as the odd one out. Movies of the time appeared to demand a young, proto-Elvis heartthrob to make a play for the teenage dollar, and Fabian is never bad, perfectly willing to make a tit of himself for Capucine and only really striking a bum note when he hopelessly serenades her.

The film is bookended with two fight scenes that take place in Nome, Alaska’s harbour town on the chilly Bering coast. These brawls are filmed as mass, slapstick affairs, and it’s no surprise to note that Richard Tamladge, whose career stretched back into the silent era, was involved in shooting them. A range of comedy sound effects used in these scenes are either irritating or add to the charm, depending on your tolerance. The studio backlot that doubles as Nome looks suitably muddy, the streets churned into medieval levels of sodden muck, but the gold mine appears to have come straight from a picture postcard. In reality filmed in California (naturally), the panoramic shots of Alaskan mountain ranges are quite lovely, particularly when an animated Aurora Borealis puts in an appearance.

Despite its length and the slowing of any progress in the mid-section, North to Alaska is entertaining enough, carrying just about enough charm to sustain it. Wayne at his most charismatic certainly helps, and I enjoyed him more here than in that other comedy Western, McLintock!, which seemed to me to really labour for its few laughs. Ernie Kovacs shows up in the film as a grifter and the tangled web of his history with Capucine’s character is only teased at, though guessing their past story isn’t difficult. Guess you must, as the focus here is on good clean fun, with even the cut-throat business of claim jumping playing second fiddle to the pratfalls and innocent romance.

North to Alaska: **

The House on 92nd Street (1945)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 19 June (11.00 am)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Henry Hathaway’s 1945 film, The House on 92nd Street, plays like an extended love letter to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Made in a faux documentary style, it was produced with the full co-operation of the FBI, opening with a shot of none other than J Edgar Hoover at his desk of work. There are also some impressive camera work showing agents going about their business, including one scene that takes place in a vast chamber, filled with antlike people engaged in identification duties.

The message is clear – the FBI is all knowing and all powerful, but luckily it’s on our side and works to protect us. Nevertheless, watched years later there’s a definite creepiness about the amount of data it’s gathered, the way its agents can put together a suspect’s life story almost as soon as he comes under scrutiny. Whilst presented as an essentially benevolent organisation, the FBI comes across as an authority with rather too much power.

Clearly, the Nazis never stood a chance. It’s suggested that long before war between Germany and the USA even broke out, the FBI was effectively waging a covert offensive against potential enemy agents, identifying and tracking anyone who fell under its watchful eye. It even had the capacity to develop its own double agents. One such is the hero of this film, William Dietrich (William Eythe), a smart and good looking student with German roots who, like any good American, goes to the FBI as soon as he’s approached by talent spotters from the Fatherland. Before long, ‘Bill’ is working deep cover, pretending to send covert messages to Hamburg on behalf of the unknown ‘Mr Christopher’ but instead relaying them to an intelligence unit, which acts as go-betweens for Bill and Nazi Germany. Over time, it emerges that Bill is being asked to transmit details of ‘Process 97′, a top secret American defence project that is, of course, the atomic bomb. But how’s Mr Christopher getting the data? What’s known and what isn’t within the German agents’ base, inside the House on 92nd Street, New York City? This forms the basis of the investigation led by G-Man George A Briggs (Lloyd Nolan) as the FBI slowly closes its grip on the house’s activities.

Reed Hadley’s authoritative narration keeps the pot boiling as Briggs gathers evidence and Bill maintains his cover. The latter’s carrying false credentials on microfilm, which inform the Nazis he is authorised to meet and deal with any of their agents. The fact he’s come from nowhere puts him under suspicion from the start, and clearly once the truth emerges (in a masterly early scene, the FBI swaps Bill’s microfilm from the Germans with its doctored version; the Germans’ plan was for him to contact nobody important) he’s going to be in a lot of trouble with the people who have ways of making him talk, but thanks to his status he gets to meet  various agents. These include dapper Leo G Carroll and swarthy Alfred Linder. But despite the enemy’s elaborate attempts to feed their information to the Fatherland, the FBI’s always one step ahead. Project 97’s safety is never in doubt. Bill’s is less certain.

Charles G Booth won an Oscar for his original screenplay, which deserves praise for keeping a deeply layered story moving and managing to crank up the suspense without such traditional elements as a love interest for the hero. Its golden portrayal of the FBI can’t help but leave a sour taste, yet the intelligence agency was deliberately painted as heroic in an era of propaganda movies and stood for the American will. More important is the style. The House on 92nd Street was produced by Louis De Rochemont, co-creator of the landmark The March of Time newsreel series, and it’s within this sensibility of storytelling that the film was put together as though recounting a series of true events. Its mark remains on any number of police thrillers made since then, adding authenticity (however contrived) and realism over melodrama and artifice.

The House on 92nd Street: ***

Rommel, Desert Fox (1951)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 2 May (3.35 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Desert Fox is an almost staggeringly brave film, considering it told the story of a World War II German officer sympathetically at a time when Nazis were routinely depicted as monsters. This is no ordinary Nazi, however; it’s the tale of Field Marshal Erwin Johannes Rommel, known as the Desert Fox for his exploits in the North African theatre of war. The film depicts his successes against mounting odds and his gradual disillusionment in the German high command.

Rommel is played by James Mason, himself no stranger to difficult, edgy roles. Glossing over the Fox’s reputation for his harshness to subordinates and gambling with his men, he comes across as a respected and brilliant field commander, pragmatic and charismatic. His story becomes the subject of Desmond Young, playing himself as a captured allied soldier who briefly met Rommel and, after the war, wrote his biography. Young questions why Rommel died in 1944, and after discussions with whoever would talk to him pieced together the Marshal’s role in an assassination attempt on Hitler.

Mason plays his character’s growing dissatisfaction with the Führer to marvellous effect. At the beginning, as his command in North Africa becomes a fight he can’t win, he’s bewildered by an order from Hitler demanding ‘Victory or Death’. By the time he’s leading troops in France against a mounting tide of Allied troops, the same order comes and he realises ‘the Bohemian Corporal’ is now a liability.

Desert Fox’s attempts at realism end with Luther Adler’s portrayal of Hitler, where it’s made clear he’s a bellowing, pontificating madman. Perhaps the very suggestion the Führer could be put on screen as a rational human being who ordered the lives of willing millions was a step too far. Strangely, whilst the other actors playing Germans speak with English accents, Adler gives Hitler’s voice the kind of comic German twang that wouldn’t look out of place on Allo Allo.

Another criticism of the film is that it’s just too short. Much of Rommel’s success in North Africa is dealt with via a mixture of archive footage and Michael Rennie’s narration, which ensures the episodes we get show him always on the losing side. Everyone who discusses Rommel runs over his abilities, yet thanks to the lack of desert foxcraft we have to accept this on reputation alone. To be fair to Mason, he acts with restrained dignity, playing the Field Marshall as an assiduous figure who possesses consideration for his soldiers, very much a good man who has the misfortune of batting for the wrong side.

Desert Fox was received lukewarmly, whilst veterans of North Africa criticised its sensitive depiction of their old nemesis. In response, when 20th Century Fox released The Desert Rats two years later, Mason appeared once again as the Field Marshal, only this time playing a much nastier piece of work.

Rommel, Desert Fox: ***